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Balkan Odyssey Part 1: Getting to Albania
Places so far off the beaten path rarely have good air connections. Albania is one exception, sort of. Shortly before planning my trip, British Airways announced that they would start flying direct to Tirana, the capital of Albania. This was a no-brainer: fly into London and catch the connecting flight onward.
Here's the problem, however. Don't ever let British Airways snooker you into the old Heathrow/Gatwick connection. My L.A. to London flight landed at noon in Heathrow and my Tirana flight took off from Gatwick at 3:45. Nearly four hours seemed enough time to make the connection. It was not.
After going through immigration, picking up baggage, and clearing customs, transfer passengers must then walk out of the airport, find the National Express bus station, stand in a long, slow-moving line, purchase a ticket for 18 pounds ($35), wait for the next bus, and then sit anxiously for an hour as the bus slowly trundles over to Gatwick. I made it just 30 minutes before my flight took off, but it seemed that at least half the bus missed a 3 pm flight they were trying to catch. British Airways does not aid in this process at all. You are on your own.
But, I guess I can't complain too much; at least I caught my flight to Mother Teresa Airport. Albania is probably the only country in the world with an airport named after a nun. It is small, surprisingly clean, and somewhat modern. Visitors must pay a 10 euro "entrance fee" which I'd normally be upset about, but considering visas are no longer required for American and European citizens, I was happy to avoid the hassles normally associated with getting one.
I landed at 8 pm just as it was getting dark. It is never a good idea to arrive in a foreign land when it's dark, especially if it is the poorest country in Europe. I assumed it wasn't very safe and dreaded the taxi scrum of suspect drivers and unsavory characters I knew awaited me just outside the exit. Just before walking out, however, I discovered an official taxi stand with official rates printed on a placard: 25 euros to the city center. I grabbed a driver, pushed my way through the phalanx of "taxi, taxi, taxi" muttering malcontents loitering outside, and headed into town. My trip had officially begun.